There’s a state of mind that psychologists refer to as “the zone.” It’s a mix of the right level of skill and challenge, and when those two things meet at the perfect pin point, you lose time. You block out the world, entering a semi-conscious dream state where the only thing that matters is the problem in front of you. Mitch hadn’t felt the zone in years, he’d forgotten that the zone even existed. Until now.
The team—with each Annihilator heavily armed and at their fingertips—were cutting their way through the first level of NeverRise like a knife through warm butter. Each had picked a robot that fit their style. Dozer went with a heavily-armed, muscled beast. Fuse found a machine piled high with mortars, land mines, and an explosive trip wire kit. Punch ended up selecting the same model as Mitch, maybe as a tribute, maybe just because it happened to be the one he jumped into.
Each turn of the dark, dingy hangar brought with it new enemies and fresh strategies. With some, the group saw armed human guards chatting in small groups, smoking cigarettes, not expecting any company. Those were easy enough to destroy with a few pulls of the trigger, especially with four Annihilators shooting from all angles. But the team was sure to hold back in scenarios where the kills would be easy to let Mitch ratchet up his points, with each human kill inching him 100 points closer to Level One.
With every new challenge, Mitch would assemble the team and scratch together a rough plan. You go this way, she goes this way. Fuse—send in the firepower first, then we come running. Punch wasn’t exactly coachable, but that was part of his charm. He’d pop into a battle from below or behind, once jumping off a four-story railing without even looking what was below him, landing a crushing blow to the foe, leaving them reeling and letting Mitch finish the job.
With each kill, it felt more and more like old times.
“We should be close to finishing this one,” Dozer said. “Should be final boss time here pretty soon. Get ready for something big.”
“Get in as many hits as you want,” Fuse added, “but leave the last hit for Mitch. Killing that boss will be our ticket out of here. Chu is waiting for us, somewhere.”
“Sure, Chu’s great and all,” Punch said over the comm, “but, holy moly do I want to get back to the real world for some lady action. You guys know what I’m talking about.”
“Been awhile?” Dozer asked.
“However long we’ve been in here, that’s how long it’s been,” Punch said. “Too long.”
“I’m sure there’s a collection of vacant singles with low self esteem forming a line outside your door,” Dozer shot back.
“Singles?” Punch said as he pushed his Annihilator forward, rounding the next corner. “Hell to the no with singles. My key to dating is two pronged. First: she needs to be young enough to be wearing a bikini in her Karma profile picture. That’s super important. Second: she needs to be married. No singles allowed.”
Mitch took the lead, checking down the next hallway before waving the team onward. Gray walls, wiring, assorted crates and boxes stacked to the sides, a few dead end alleys here and there, but not much more. He reloaded his guns, making sure his scanners were active and at the ready. With nothing ahead of them, and no enemy activity for the past few minutes, Mitch started to think the game was leading them into something big.
“Married women?” Fuse asked. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Or does it make all the sense in the world?” Punch replied. “Simple math, my friend. If I ask out a single girl, that will beg the question in her mind ‘is this guy better than all my other options?’ The answer to that is obviously no. But with a married woman, she’ll just ask herself ‘is he better than that douchebag I married?’ Better odds that way. I’m surprised you didn’t think of that yourself.”
“You’re a pig,” Dozer said.
“Running the numbers,” Fuse said, “I’d say you have a better chance of getting a shotgun to the back than finding your lifetime companion.”
“It’s a risk I’m willing to take,” Punch said. “A risk I take for love.”
“Alright, quiet on the channel back there,” Mitch said, approaching the end of the hallway. He checked his point level: 8,250. A final boss would definitely take him past the mark. All they needed to do was find it.
He rounded the corner and recoiled at a bright wash of sunlight beaming through his canopy, illuminating the platform he was now standing on. It was the entrance to some type of amphitheater, carved out of metal, like an Incan temple built from steel. Down past the massive flight of stairs, a dirt floor lined a pyramid-shaped temple, with a smaller platform flattening the top. On its roof, an eight-legged machine paced. The machine, which lit up on Mitch’s scanner with a label calling it “Aranator,” looked like someone had mixed a bull with a forty-foot spider and thrown in a tank just for fun. Mitch paced his Annihilator carefully across the platform to get a better angle, looking for any more company.
“That’s got to be the boss,” Mitch whispered. “But no sign of Red Code. He’s down there, somewhere. I just know it.”
“Let’s worry about the spider-bull-thing first,” Punch advised. “If that red piece of shit shows up to join the party, we’ll figure something out.”
“We’ll do everything we need to do to keep him out of Skirmish,” Dozer said. “Red Code said he needs our help to get there, which means we know one thing—he doesn’t have a way to get in without us. We nail this robo-asshole,” Fuse pointed down at the final boss, “go rescue Chu, and move on.”
“So let’s make sure we’re…” Mitch turned to face the team and build out a plan, but it was too late. Dozer had already Leeroy Jenkins-ed herself right down the stairs, running full-sprint straight at the boss. She screamed something Mitch couldn’t recognize as the guns began to blaze, leaving a wake of shell casings chiming off the floor.
The first round of shots hit the joint connectors on a few of the spider’s legs, tick-tacking their way up its torso. Arantor spun, it’s eyes flashing bright white, and activated a semi-circle translucent shield. As the shield sprang to full extension, Dozer’s bullets began deflecting in every direction, including right back at the group.
“Scatter!” Mitch yelled, taking refuge behind a pillar. “Everyone get moving. Fuse, get some ordinance up over that shield.”
“On it,” Fuse said. He took off down the left side of the stairs. “Sure could use some sniper cover right now.”
“Sniper fire’s not on the menu today,” Dozer yelled back. Her dramatic entrance into the arena had managed to do one thing—distract the Arantor. As she circled the boss, still firing against the shield, she was pulling its attention, and defenses, along with her.
Treading across the dirt floor, Fuse padded his Annihilator silently up the stairs of the center temple, dodging stray bullets every few steps, and took a flying leap up and over the boss’s back. He pivoted mid-air, throwing two sticky bombs, each clunking with hollow, metallic echoes as their magnets affixed on the spider’s arching hind quarters. The Arantor spun and swatted with one of its front legs, whiffing, hitting only air. Fuse landed his Annihilator in a pretty impressive barrel roll on the far side of the temple, jumping up with his guns blazing, now squared up facing the boss’s unprotected backside.
The bombs went off with a one-two cadence, knocking the Aranator’s weight onto its right legs, then its left, like some sort of new dance move all the kids are doing.
Mitch watched as the boss’s health bar bonked down to just under fifty percent.
“Nice moves, Poindexter,” Dozer yelled, now standing next to Fuse and keeping her machine guns hot. “Didn’t know these Annihilators could do that.”
“Like I said,” Fuse replied, continuing to fire, his breath rushed. “You should really read the manual.”
The boss found its feet and turned in a flash, shooting a lattice of white web into the air, both high and low, hitting the two Annihilators at their heads and feet. The blast knocked them down the steps, their machines now frozen, metal sizzling, decaying away from some sort of chemical reaction. The Aranator screamed a banshee-sounding wail and paced towards them, heading in for the kill.
“Son of a bitch,” Dozer yelled. “Somebody help us out over here.”
You can do this, Mitch.
“I’m on it,” Punch yelled, making his way down to the base of the temple’s stairs, and firing up a set of heat-seeking rockets. He pulled at both triggers, unleashing a wave of projectiles curving through the air, taking unique paths, but all headed straight for the boss. The Aranator pulled back on its hind legs, waiting, and then rolled across the platform, the missiles detonating harmlessly back in his old position. “Rockets aren’t going to work, this thing is too fast. We’ll need to try something else.”
“Incoming!” Mitch yelled.
Mitch had used his Annihilator's rapid grappling ability to climb the nearest pillar, getting a few hundred feet into the air, before making the jump. He stuck the landing, directly on the Arantor, the impact cracking the stone floor under his feet and shaking Punch’s machine off it’s feet, spinning him backwards and back down the stairs. Mitch looked up to find himself standing firmly on the spider’s back, pinning him to the ground, the boss’ body broken, its legs flailing helplessly to the sides. I’m done with all of this. Mitch wound up his huge mechanical fists like a prizefighter, punching deep into the boss’s stomach, over and over. Sparks and fire flew out as the boss’s health ticked down with each blow.
After a few more shots, Mitch jumped off the helpless spider, who laid at the center of the temple, no soul left in its eyes. “Time to finish him off.”
Mitch took a long last look at the Aranator, and shoved his hand down into its chest. He pulled out a mechanical heart, still pulsing with light, until it finally fell dark.
ARANATOR - DESTROYED
YOU HAVE LEVELED UP
FULL HEALTH RESTORED
Mitch’s heart was still pounding, his veins throbbing, as he stared down at the remains of Aranator, tossing the robot’s sparking heart off to the side like an afterthought. A loot indicator appeared, hovering over the boss’ metallic corpse. This should be good.
NEW WEAPON: VOLT RIFLE
NEW WEAPON: LASER SWORD
“Holy shit, Mitch,” Punch said. “Looks like your vacation is over.”
“You did ok,” Dozer said over the comm, walking her Annihilator over to kick Aranator’s remains. “This thing sure had some spice to it.”
“Definitely too powerful for a level one boss,” Fuse nodded, inspecting the details of the machine. “Should have been a level six. Seven, even.”
Punch popped his cockpit and jumped down to the floor. “Did you see this chicken-ass at the end there? His beady little robot eyes had this look—he just wanted to get out of town just with anything he could carry, you know? He didn’t want to deal with the Mitchinator. He wanted out. This is the feeling, man, this right here. Like old times. Like getting the band back together.”
Mitch felt something, too. Whatever it was, he suddenly realized that it had been with him over the years, hiding in nooks and crannies of his brain. He’d felt a piece of it every now and then, a tinge or a rush that came and went, but nothing like this. Whatever it was, the feeling was now back in full force.
Without warning, the sky shone bright white in a flash of heat and light. Mitch reflexively covered his eyes, turning away from his dashboard, wincing. As he felt the light fade, he lowered his hand, watching the world turn back to color, washing over like rain.
He looked up to the top of the stairs, where the team had entered the arena, and saw a familiar form emerge from the light. As the color returned to his sight, all he could see was red.
- Austin, TX
Bio: I've spent my life messing around with different kinds of technology—from coding to data analysis to hardware and electronics. The stories I write blend real-world technology with fun, action-packed plots and interesting characters. At least, that's what they're meant to do. I've written two tech thrillers: Crash Alive and the sequel, Crash Into Pieces. Both are available on Amazon in Kindle, Kindle Unlimited, and in paperback. When I'm not writing, I'm working at my day job running a research team at a technology company, or teaching my kids how to pick locks at our home in Austin, TX. My thoughts on tech and data have been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Mail, CNBC, and USA Today. I share hints on what's coming for upcoming stories here: Twitter: twitter.com/chriskerns Facebook: facebook.com/christopherkerns.author